Saturday, 29 December 2012

NORMAN SCHWARZKOPF: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Norman Schwarzkopf, the general who led Operation Desert Storm, is online at the Guardian (link to it here) and may be in the paper paper today (Saturday 28th). There are a few changes to what I wrote, as I was unavailable for the editing process after writing it on short notice, but they are mostly changes of omission. I will confess that after studying his life, I was more favorably inclined to Schwarzkopf than I had thought I would be--it is not his fault that America tends to provide its military heroes with unquestioning adulation, nor that the American military tends to reward them with a prolifigacy which might embarrass the soldiers of the past. He also didn't seem to be a careerist who rose quickly through the bureaucratic army, like say, Colin Powell, whose rise began when he helped cover up and spin the My Lai massacre. Although I don't agree with the pervasive belief in the 'Vietnam Syndrome', I could respect the way Schwarzkopf decided to fight his war to win it, with the fewest possible casualties on his side, and with the public presented with a positive media experience of it. It helped that the First Iraq War was relatively more straightforward than the second; Iraq had indeed provided a causus belli.

Schwarzkopf's biggest error, in retrospect, was allowing the Iraqis the means to put down the insurrections that rose up against Saddam--but his instinct against becoming an occupying power in Iraq was sound, and the ultimate political decisions, of course, were not his. As we saw in the Second Iraq War, and in Afghanistan, he was absolutely right on that count. Although he supported the 2003 invasion, that support was quickly moderated by his realisation the war was being fought on fabricated grounds, that 'mission creep' led to an occupation far worse than he had imagined a decade earlier, and by his intense dislike of Donald Rumsfeld's ways of waging war, using reservists and contractors to replace the standing army.

His public stances on that war were not profound, but his absence of cheerleading for the second Bush administration spoke volumes. I also found the quiet life he led in Tampa relatively admirable, as he was active with charity work alongside the usual board memberships on arms companies. That he never sought political office or power, or to cash in publicly on his name seems to me the sign of a man with a strong personal compass. A contrast, say, to David Petraeus.

The paper cut a few interesting things about his father, whose main fame comes because he led the New Jersey State Police during their investigation of the Lindbergh Kidnapping, the 1930s' crime of the century. (That's him with Lindbergh in the photo on the right). The guilt of Bruno Richard Hauptman remains in some doubt, and his role in getting Hauptman convicted was crucial. For some reason the paper took out what became the most lasting legacy of his consultancies, for the Shah of Iran just after a CIA-backed coup installed him in power. Schwarzkopf, Sr. basically organised the SAVAK, the Iranian secret police, and it must be said, he did a good job because they were efficient in their work. It was because of that work that Norman was educated in Tehran and in Europe, which I think had a profound effect on his world-view.

The legacy of the Shah and his Savak, of course, was the Ayatollah Homeni, the Embassy Hostages, the October Surprise and Reagan's election, and then the Iran/Iraq wars, where we were, whisper it softly now, on Iraq's side, and provided them with the weapons of mass destruction they used first on Iranian troops and then on their own people, pace the famous photo of Rumsfeld and his buddy-in-democracy Saddam shaking hands after another arms deal had been done. Eventually, that would lead to Desert Storm, where, as we discovered a decade later, we could have done a lot worse than a general like Norman Schwarzkopf.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

GRAHAM HURLEY'S WESTERN APPROACHES: I.T.'S CHRISTMAS READ

Joe Faraday is dead by his own hand. Bazza McKenzie, crime lord of Pompey, is dead. His betrayer, ex-cop Paul Winter, has gone off into hiding with Misty Gallagher. And Jimmy Suttle has taken his journalist wife Lizzie and their baby daughter down to a decrepit house in Devon, where he's now working for the Devon and Cornwall police. So when the body of a wealthy rower is found on the pavement below his huge penthouse overlooking Exmouth's shore, Suttle's instincts kick in, and he is determined to prove that this was indeed a major crime and not a suicide.

Western Approaches represents a change of direction, as it were, for Graham Hurley. Faraday was a loner, a 'depressive detective' in the mould of Beck, Bosch, or Resnick, but what made the series succeed so well was the growth of Winter as a character; the two of them providing a sort of partnership even though they weren't actually together. The problem with switching to Jimmy Suttle is we don't really have a good picture of the man, and what makes him tick, he's younger and with less backstory than his superiors in Portsmouth. But it's a problem Hurley solves deftly, by making Suttle's marriage the focal point of the story. Lizzie is frustrated, as their brucolic dream becomes a dreary nightmare, intensified by Suttle's ability to settle for making do, and his growing satisfaction with the work. Lizzie misses her work, misses her city, and in effect misses the people they were when they got married.

It is interesting how this story trumps the actual investigation into the crime, although inevitably they do come together, as Suttle encourages his wife to join the rowing club to which the murder victim belonged, and indeed tried to dominate. Rowing provides Lizzie with the springboard to recapturing her own life, for better or worse. Suttle also has to deal with his own past, in the shape of some of Bazza's old Pompey gang, who want revenge on Winter and assume Suttle will know where to find him. This highlights another problem for Hurley: the previous series plays an important part in this story, and the characters play a part too. If you're coming to it cold, it will not resonate the way it does if you followed the whole Faraday-Winter saga, that is unavoidable, but he manages to built up the background through inference to avoid the reader relying solely on explication.

The actual 'mystery' in this tale is not all that mysterious, though at least one of the suspects, a former actress living in a trailer with her wanna-be film-maker partner, is interesting enough to warrant more time—indeed, Hurley creates a number of female characters who cry out for more attention, but that attention is really directed at Lizzie. And it's a fine piece of writing, as he delineates the growing chasm between her and Suttle (who is anything but, ironically), and charts the ebb and flow of their relationship—something which echoes the movie the rowing pair were getting the murder victim to fund.

The crime plays out as one might expect, but Lizzie and Suttle's story plays out with more than a few twists, which are worth leaving unspoiled. The final one however, suggests an immediate sequel, which already has conflict set up, because Hurley does something he writes very well: has a character act against a number of instincts because of one that is, in the initial instance, more powerful. That is the frailty which he has examined in great deal in the Faraday/Winter books, and he's off to a good start here. Western Approaches was my Christmas Eve/Day read, and it's actually published tomorrow: too late to be a gift, but definitely a present.

Western Approaches by Graham Hurley
Orion £12.99 ISBN 9781409131526

this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Sunday, 23 December 2012

DEMETRIUS DAVIS: REMEMBERING A WORLD LEAGUE STAR


Demetrius Davis began his pro football career as Mr. Irrelevant, the last guy taken in the 1990 NFL Draft, by the Oakland Raiders, out of Nevada. He came along about 15 years too soon: a basketball-first, 6-4 220lb tight end, he would have fit in better with today's passing games. As it was, he never played a down in the NFL, but he had a great run in the World League of American Football, aka NFL Europe, with the Barcelona Dragons, playing in 1991 and 92, and then coming back for two seasons in 1995 when the league was reborn. Not only was he a fine player, the tight end when I picked my all-time NFLE team when the league finally shut down for good in 2007, but he was also one of my favourite players to talk to. The great thing about covering the league was the openness; you could approach players and coaches, film during practices, and get some fairly straight poop if they trusted you. Players who played multiple seasons recognised you, like you were part of a club, and most of those kind of players were back in the league not just because they were good players, maybe great AAA level players, but also because their coaches saw them as positive influences.

That's the way Jack Bicknell saw Demetrius. He was constantly bringing back players, and guys like Eric Lindstrom, Tyree Davis, Eric Naposki all told me they would not have come back were it not for him. Although good attitude couldn't win a league title for you, leadership and team spirit could really help, and the reality was just a couple of bad apples could kill a season stone dead. In a league where some people were assigned by teams with the understanding they would get playing time, where you had to put a new team together each season, and keep them happy for ten weeks in what for most of them was terra incognito, playing for not much money, sharing rooms, and eating the same meals over and over again, guys like Demetrius, who were fighting to keep their football dream alive, playing in part for the love of the game, and willing to do what it took to make the experience work stood out. It was no coincidence that these players were great interviews; Demetrius was probably the best, honest, smart, and above all funny. He projected warmth that is rare to encounter in those situations.

Demetrius was clearly one of the league's best players in 1991, when the Dragons went all the way to the World Bowl, which they lost to the Monarchs before 61,000 fans at Wembley. He was quick, ran routes precisely, had great hands, and was a very good blocker. But at 225 he was just too small to play tight end in the NFL. Ten years later, he might have had the kind of career Bryan Fletcher had with the Bears and Colts. When he came back in 1995-6 he had obviously built himself up, but it affected his quickness, and in retrospect I now wonder if it might have had some bearing on the burst heart that took his life a week ago after a pick-up basketball game. He was realistic in '96 that it was his final go-around; his knees would not get better, he needed to give it one last shot and then get on with his life. I regretted that he hadn't stayed around for one more season; the 1997 Dragons, led by Jon Kitna, and with probably the best trio of receivers the league ever saw (Alfonso Browning, Shedrick Wilson, and the return of Tyree Davis) would have been perfect for him, and of course that was the year the Dragons won the World Bowl. Their tight end, Bryce Burnett, was another returning player, very similar to the 1991 Demetrius, though not as talented.

I have to admit I was shocked to hear of his death. He was only 46; he'd been working on workman comp claims. His cousin, CC Sabathia, the Yankees' pitcher, was apparently going to take care of his funeral expenses. Chris Ault, Davis' coach at Nevada, who still coaches there, sent along his number 88 jersey. Ault was credited by Davis' Nevada teammate and best friend, Lucky Witherspoon, for helping to keep teammates together, and I find that encouraging as I sometimes ponder what football means to me and what the sport is about. It's sad that there is no NFL Europe, so sad that there are no longer any Barcelona Dragons to send another jersey along.

One of the thing I loved about the World League/NFL Europe was following the progress of the guys I met into what they called 'the league', and sometimes elsewhere (Canada, Arena). It was a chance for lots of us to find niches in the game, and make a living doing something we loved. But I often failed to follow what happened after football, after dreams dried up, and the 'real' world took over. I don't flatter myself to think I knew Demetrius well, but from what I did know of him, I'm sure he made the most of what the world presented him.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

PHILIP ROTH'S INDIGNATION

I have been haunted by Philip Roth's 2008 novel Indignation since I finally read it a week ago, turning it over and over in my head, as if to replay and perhaps restage some of its conflicts, as if to acknowledge just how closely it taps into my own apprehensions of the world as it was shown to me in my youth, and as if to marvel again at the way Roth can render all this relevant to a world which his protagonist, Marcus Messner, would never have been able to comprehend.

As a coming of age story, Roth treads the familiar ground of Newark, set out in many of the amazing novels of his late renaissance, but he also looks back, clearly, with Marcus' relationship with his father, a kosher butcher, to Portnoy's Complaint, and in his infatuation with Olivia Hutton, the damaged WASPy girl he meets at Winesburg College to his novella Goodbye Columbus, which was, I still believe, the outstanding work of his early years. In that story, there is a world that is unapproachable, one that lives by different rules, or pretends too, and Neil Klugman cannot react with enough indignation, or knows the danger of so doing. In the present novel, allowing for that possibility, makes Indignation much more, it is  a novel of eros and thanatos, sex and death, something growing out of the Fiedlerian mainstream of Freudian American post-war fiction whose crest Roth initially rode. But it's also more than that—it's a transformation of the personal into a fable worthy of the best of Hawthorne, but one that encapsulates the whole period of Roth's own life, the latter half of the 20th Century,

Indignation is set in the era into which I was born—the Korean War is in progress, the draft looms over the shoulders of the non-deferred, and Marcus' father, as he graduates from high school and from his post as his father's aide in the butcher's shop, is growing more and more obsessive about protecting his son—not just from that war, but from the changes in American society brought on by the just-completed war, by the growing prosperity, and the freedoms it brings with it. Marcus is a 'good' boy—hard-working in the family business and at school, respectful, even a moderately good second-baseman on the baseball team. He heads off to Robert Treat College, in Newark, where he finds himself challenged and finds some of his horizons growing—but the spectre of his father's control leads him to transfer to Winesburg, a Lutheran college in Ohio, where he is very much the outsider (remember Roth at Bucknell). He works as a waiter, he feuds with his roommates, then with his next roommate, he studies, and eventually he falls for a girl.

Who gives him a blow job on their first date. This behaviour is incomprehensible to Marcus, he is a 'good' boy and this is something 'good' girls do not do. Trying to comprehend it—is it because her parents are divorced? Because she has suicide scars on her wrists?--throws Marcus for a loop, a first step toward a crumbling of the world as he understands it. This process is reinforced by the attentions of the Dean, with whom Marcus winds up debating and arguing over his own lack of involvement in the school's social life (something that is de facto limited by his being Jewish), and by his requirement to attend chapel—to which he objects not because he is Jewish but because he considers himself an atheist. For the first time, Marcus finds himself rebelling, almost instinctively, and certainly beyond his control.

He winds up ill, in the hospital, where his relationship with Olivia is rekindled and then lost after his mother arrives, with the revelation that she intends to divorce his father. A barter is made, lives seem ruined, the campus explodes in a snowball fight, and Marcus winds up being expelled, and exposed to the draft. And the story, we have learned, is being narrated from the afterlife, because Marcus was killed in Korea shortly before the cessation of hostilities.

There is a lot of plot synopsis above, but I honestly find it hard to explain why this novel is so powerful without setting out the story. What makes it linger is the honest befuddlement of Marcus (names, as ever, are important to Roth--'mess' ner, Winesburg with its association with Sherwood Anderson, Robert Treat, the Puritan from my home town in Connecticut, and so on) and the way he is let down by the expectations of both his Jewish upbringing and of 'mainstream' America, how those combine to create a lethal cocktail, and it is enough to raise Roth's, and our, indignation. As I said, it's a book about America, but it's also about the direct link between sex and death, being narrated after that death. In that sense, I think the British cover (above) and the US cover (right) needed to be amalgamated for a more telling effect.

Indignation by Philip Roth
Vintage 2009, £7.99, ISBN 9780099523420

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

DANIEL INOUYE: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Daniel Inouye, the Senator from Hawaii who was a stalwart presence in both the Watergate and Iran-Contra hearings, is online at the Guardian (link here) and may be in the paper paper today. It appears more or less as I wrote it to a very short deadline, and without a chance to go over changes. One thing that was lost was his last word: 'aloha' which of course in Hawaiian means both 'hello' and 'goodbye'.

While writing about his handling of those two investigations, I recalled my frustrations at the time; Inouye was a strong presence, but he was also very much not a boat-rocker, nor a grandstander. One thing I did not write about was the fact that he was never able to win a vote for majority (or minority) leader in the Senate. He was well liked, and I believe the fulsome praise for his character, his integrity, and his honesty which he received from his colleagues yesterday was deserved, but I think too they felt those attributes made him less than best-suited for the arm-twisting and deal-making that defines the leadership role, the Lyndon Johnson idea.

The story of his medal-winning heroism is amazing; not only risking his own life repeatedly when he was being told to stop, but protecting his men at the same time. Although there was some criticism at the time he was awarded the Medal of Honor that this was a political gesture, it seemed to me deserved, especially in an age where the US military award themselves medals and ribbons at the slightest justification.

I also mentioned the interesting case of his succession. The governor of Hawaii, Neil Abercrombie, will apparently make an appointment at the end of December, in time for the new swearing in of the Senate on January 3. If the new Senator, who would serve until a special election in 2014, were sworn in later, he or she would lose seniority; as it stands they would have equal standing with Hawaii's other Senator, Mazie Hirono, who was just elected in November. The leading candidate is Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, who is seen as Inouye's protege, and whose endorsement he gave in a last-wish letter to the governor.  Hanabusa, who will begin her second term in the House, is the only Congressperson with any seniority in the Hawaii delegation.

The dark horse is newlt-elected Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who like Inouye has military service as a selling point, and who, at 31, will be one of the youngest people in Congress. There is some talk that retired Senator Daniel Akaka could be asked to return to Washington, where his 22 years of seniority would carry over (seniority gets better committee appointments and chairmanships). But seniority has to be balanced off against the idea of a placeholder, which would mean starting over in 2014 with a new and junior candidate again.


And finally, I did mention that his second wife is the founding CEO of the Japanese-American Museum in Los Angeles, and his son Kenny is a rock musician.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

DON WINSLOW'S KINGS OF COOL

Don Winslow is a daring writer. He's not afraid to venture into new territory, and his best books are as different as the deft subtleties of Isle Of Joy are from the epic sweep of The Power Of The Dog; as the off-beat California Fire & Life is from the even more off-beat The Dawn Patrol. With Savages, Winslow again broke new ground (see my review here)--not only with his characters, but with the style of writing, a small masterpiece of form following function as he broke down the drug wars to a more personal scale than The Power Of The Dog.

Writing a 'prequel' to Savages might be looked at as being a commercial decision, the way his 'Trevanian' exercise, Satori was (you can link to my review here). Oliver Stone has turned Savages into a movie, and tinkered with the ending, but without giving too much away suffice it to say a sequel to Savages would have been a difficult task even without the movie--which I haven't yet seen, by the way, else I would have written this review and that one earlier!

But Kings Of Cool works as a prequel because it follows up on a couple of Winslow's ideas about the drug wars and American (or Californian, which you can see as an outlier or a wind-tunnel for the rest of the country) which were explicit in Power Of The Dog, and implicit in Savages. The big one is that the whole miasma of the so-called war on drugs is a function of demand. Take away the demand for product, and the 'problem' goes away. But we as a country are so reliant on that product, that the world's entrepreneurs can hardly resist the opportunity. Oddly enough, this point became crystal (not meth) clear to me while reading Dashiell Hammett's stories again for the Open Book interview I did last month (link here). There are plenty of hopheads in Hammett's work—most of them are confined to the murky underworld and skid rows or their like, and the others are primarily among the very rich and famous. As long as things remained so, even as usage spread on a large scale within the black community, the drug 'problem' remained under control.

In Savages, although Ben and Chon (and their girlfriend O) are new age small-scale homeland-endorsed entrepreneurs, they find in the end that market forces have outstripped drug culture boundaries—as pot dealers they are no longer above or beyond the drugs lords who control heroin or cocaine (and there's an interesting sidebar to be written about the place of the other home-grown business, meth cooking, the bootlegging of the 21st century and it's relation to big-time organised crime).

Kings Of Cool shows us how that came to be. The story begins Ben and Chon setting up their business in the new century, but quickly flashes back to the Sixties, with California hippie culture in full bloom and Chon's father, John (in prison when we meet him Savages) is a skateboarding kid called Johnny Mac who's taken under the wing of Doc, the Taco Jesus of the boardwalk in Laguna Beach, and quickly becomes his most successful drug dealer. We meet O's mother (the so-called Passive-Agressive Queen of the Universe) when she is just a young beauty trying to score a rich husband, and we meet Ben's well-meaning parents, who want to use their pot-selling profits to run their new-age bookshop. It's a rich mix, and it rings as authentic as Winslow's late Fifties Manhattan did in Isle of Joy, and it raises various questions not only about the parenting given our three marijuana musketeers, but indeed paternity itself.

And then, to put it simply, coke comes on scene, and everything changes, and, as we already know with the hindsight provided by Savages, when Ben, Chon and O finally learn the truth about their pasts, and change their presents, the consequences are, if not preordained, almost inevitable. The presence of characters from other Winslow books, like the hit man Frankie Machine or the legendary drug dealer Bobby Z, reinforce this point, and make it seem as if Winslow has been preparing for this moment for a long time.

What helps it all work is that Winslow has again altered his style, subtlely, to reflect the various drugs that dominate the narrative. So that the early sections have a hazy, sunny feel to them, less precise and forced than what follows, and both are different from the free-form trippiness established in Savages (interestingly, O, the most interesting verbally of the characters, becomes the narrator for Oliver Stone). I'm not sure where Kings Of Cool sits, depending on whether or not you've read Savages, and/or seen the movie, but as a feat of writing it is not far short of a tour de force. The war on drugs is monstrous and serious enough to deserve a writer like Winslow, who can meet it head on, but also take it back to its roots within our world. He's a daring, and tremendous writer.

Kings Of Cool, Random House £12.99
ISBN 9780434022076

NOTE: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Sunday, 9 December 2012

GEORGE HIGGINS' EASIEST THING IN THE WORLD: THE SHOTS COLUMN

NOTE: This review originally appeared as number 7 of my short-lived column 'American Eye' forShots Ezine. It was short-lived in part because I had trouble with the deadlines, as the openng sentence reminds me. Re-reading it in light of the preceding IT post on Killing Them Softly makes me think it might be time to revive it.

  
There’s a reason why September’s American Eye is late. It is because I was reading with one American eye shut, knowing that when I finished this collection of George V Higgins’ ‘uncollected’ short fiction, there would be nothing else of Higgins left for me to read for the first time. Not that the prospect of revisiting the work of the writer I consider the best and most original voice in crime fiction between Richard Stark and James Ellroy is depressing. But the idea that Higgins had some untold tales I will now forever miss just might be.

I say ‘uncollected’ because in fact, Higgins published a short-story collection, The Sins Of Our Fathers, in this country, and three of the tales included here were also in that book. That’s not a problem, really, although the editor of this volume, the prolific Matthew J Bruccoli, doesn’t appear to have done much actual editing: the book is littered with literals which detract from the overall appeal. There is, however, a nice, though short, introductory fond memory by Robert B Parker, who says that, like himself, as his career progressed, he grew more fond of writing about the characters, wherever that took him.

It’s true. Higgins appeal seemed to fade consistently, after The Friends Of Eddie Coyle
, in part because it was such an incredible debut novel. But I think there was another paradox at work here: because the better his later work got, the more out of step with the times it became. In The Mandeville Talent, for example, he addressed the problem directly, with a detective character who, in effect, takes a yuppie couple under his wing and teaches them about the ways of the world. Because that was what his books were always about, the way of the world, the way it worked, the way things fitted together, or at least the way it used to work. Actually, it might be better to phrase that, the way we think it used to, because my impression is that, deep down, it still does work in a clockwork of give and take, of favours granted and withheld, of petty corruptions: palm greasing and back-rubbing, and it’s just the outward appearance which has been changed by the children of Higgins’ generation, our yuppie Thatcherite laissez-faire society, or maybe it’s that the behind the scenes graft has been taken over by a newly empowered apparatchik class.

Higgins didn’t like this, and it shows in this collection. The most important, and interesting stories, are billed as two novellettes, though the first, the title story of the book, is actually a short-story; but at least neither of them actually has been collected before. The title story comes with a separate prequel, a very short coda, as it were. It’s about the roles of men and women in society as much as anything to do with crime, and what makes it particularly interesting is the way Higgins experiments with the passage of time, not the easiest thing to do when you are telling the story mostly in dialogue. So conversations sometimes segue from one period to another, seamlessly, to the point where you’re not even sure where you are until you check.

The second story, which actually is a novellette, or maybe a novella, who cares? is called ‘Slowly Now The Dancer’, and if that perhaps suggests Anthony Powell and time, well, the time part of the suggestion is accurate. Again, Higgins plays with time, but in this piece time itself takes the place of his usual story-telling technique: there is far more narration than you’d expect, far fewer of the line-ups of quotation marks (inverted commas) signifying that someone is telling you their recollection of a statement made by a third person to a fourth as recollected by a fifth to your original story-teller.  Instead, Higgins’ narrative slips and slides between periods of time, as a Boston son returns to his family home in Vermont, and basically takes you through almost a century’s worth of changing social fabric along the way. You can see why the story never sold; as Prof. Bruccoli says in an editor’s note, only John O’Hara could sell such things. He doesn’t mention that even for O’Hara, such stories were often a hard sell, and that was a good while before Higgins. It’s not a crime story at all, yet I can’t help but feel any fan of Higgins’ crime fiction, and how can you not be?, would love it.

‘Old Earl Died Pulling Traps’ isn’t really a crime story either; it is about lawyers, though, who are ipso facto criminals, and it’s another tale of changing mores, taking us through a couple of generations of a small town, and a few people, and how they interact while conducting the business of their lives. For lawyers, lives are business to be conducted, and Higgins’ realisation of this is really the bedrock of all his fiction. It was published as a limited edition chapbook. ‘The Last Wash Of The Teapot’ is similar, again no crime involved, only a lawyer’s resolution of two people’s lives after one of them loses her spouse. It’s presented as a draft for a narrative play, a Hal Holbrook-type recital on stage, but it works on the page in the same way that Higgins’ storytellers have always worked on the page.

Some of these stories are slight. Higgins had a fondness for shaggy-dog stories; maybe there was a touch of O. Henry about him. A couple of his novels are really just extended shaggy dog stories, and unsatisfying as a result, but in the short story format you can get away with it. The three Donnelly stories are like that, but none the worse for it, and ‘Landmark Theatre May Shut Down’ actually surprised me by being, in the end, a subtle variation on the shaggy-dog theme.

In some of these stories Higgins is also writing as a New Englander, not, as in most of his novels, as a Bostonian. One difference is that the New Englander has a finer sense of the history of the place, and the people who make up that history.
This was, to some extent, what The Mandeville Talent was concerned with, and why so much of it was set outside Boston. The other difference is that the world of urban crime is a Boston thing (and Providence, and Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport etc) but not something we associate with little places, and it is important for Higgins to write his characters in ways that are not dictated by their (and his) need to indulge in criminal behaviour. Anti-social, fine. That New England mentality is a big part of my other favourite of the stories, ‘The Habits Of The Animals: The Progress Of The Seasons’, which is really a study of marriage, as told by a character who just happens to be a state trooper.

He’s a Korean War veteran (like Parker’s Spenser) and he grew up in the Depression, and married in an era where sexual mores were different. That the story is set in a small town near Ossipee, New Hampshire, an area where I spent many of my childhood summers, makes no difference to my appreciation of this brilliantly judged piece of writing. It was reprinted in Best American Short Stories 1973, and for good reason. But just imagine yourself as Higgins at that point: your crime novel is a smash, it’s being made into a small classic of a movie, and this serious story is one of the year’s best. No surprise he never matched that peak in public acclaim again.

Yet the novels flowed, and they constitute one of the strongest bodies of work for any crime novelist. And the stories flowed too. The last one in this collection, ‘Jack Duggan’s Law’ was chosen by Joyce Carol Oates for the Best American Mystery Stories collection a couple of years ago; it’s one of Higgins’ sleazy lawyer tales, and it is a good one. There’s an elegiac feeling about the book. His last published novel was called At End Of Day, and a number of his later novels were elegiac, almost nostalgic. This collection feels nostalgic too, But the overall flavour of this book is set out by the story titles. Beyond those already named, those like ‘An End Of Revels’ and ’Life Was Absolutely Swell’. Not that life WAS necessarily that swell, but that it was superior, in its way, to what it is now. Or least it was when George V Higgins was writing about it. He died a week before his sixtieth birthday. Sometimes, the easiest thing in the world is hard.

THE EASIEST THING IN THE WORLD
Carroll & Graf, 2004, $15.95 ISBN 0786716665
 

KILLING THEM SOFTLY: GEORGE HIGGINS RETURNS ON FILM

Killing Them Softly is only the second film to have been adapted from a novel by George V. Higgins. As the first was The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, which is a classic, and that was almost 40 years ago, this raises the simple question 'why?'. On the surface, Higgins' novels seem to invite the transition to screenplay; they are written primarily in dialogue, and in Killing Them Softly, just as in Eddie Coyle, large chunks of dialogue are transferred from page to screen virtually intact; forty years have not rendered Higgins' characters or their talk obsolete. Perhaps it's because the dialogue tells so much of the story: Higgins' stories are generally being told by one character to another, with the reader listening in to a very Boston (and Irish) kind of recital. Indeed, Andrew Dominik's adaptation of Cogan's Trade is set in 2008, in a place which looks and lives a lot like post-Katrina New Orleans, but has Boston's suburbs, and seems to be somewhere where everyone sounds like they're from somewhere else, including Australia.

If Eddie Coyle were a perfect little neo-noir, set in Boston's underground, Killing Them Softly aspires to be more, and that may be part of the reason it misses the bigger picture. For Dominik it's the set-up that is the point; the initial robbery, of a mob's poker game, is not quite an inside job, but includes the cynical framing of a hapless victim who has once before tried an inside job. The frame is engineered by a small-time grafter who hires two losers to pull off the job. It nearly works, but it is destined, inevitably, not to work. Jackie Cogan is the man sent in to set the balance right, his trade being that of killer, and in Higgins' world, that balance is a difficult equation, one that proves too difficult for Dominik.

You can see how in bits of the film that are his, not Higgins', like the title. It comes from Cogan's explaining why he likes to kill from a distance, 'softly', because it's embarrassing the way people behave when they realise they are going to die. It marks a sort of embarrassment of his own, not so much at his job, but at the fact that his job is necessary. In Higgins' world, Cogan's job is necessary because although the world has its rules, they are honoured in their breach; that is exactly the way the world works. In Dominick's version, the world doesn't really work. This leads him to surround the story with reminders of the world we are living in, mostly shown on TVs running in the background,with Barack Obama, Shrub Bush, or 'Hank' Paulson illustrating disaster and break-down in the 'real' world outside. It culminates with a shut-down speech by Cogan (as played by Brad Pitt) to the mob lawyer played by Richard Jenkins. On the surface, it is the most prefect Higgins scene, because Jenkins' character is actually the one who best reflects Higgins' world, the one character in this film who could have fit comfortably into Eddie Coyle. Pitt's lecture, however, seems to have been lifted from Howard Zinn, or maybe Oliver Stone or James Ellroy, about how corruption and cheating are at the heart of America; it sure doesn't come from Higgins. Higgins understood that rules are honoured in their breach, and that the real world functions (or perhaps functioned, before the focus of 24/7 TV) in those breaches. It's why many of his best books work in the areas where people make the corruption work, or illustrate to the naïve how it can work.

Dominik's interest is an outgrowth of his earlier film, of Ron Carlson's The Assassination Of Jesse James, which also starred Pitt, and was primarily about the rise of celebrity, and the demands it puts on would-be heroes. Pitt's Cogan is suitably non-heroic when he needs to be—there's an excellent scene in which he explains to one of the doomed hoods that 'very few guys know me', but that's undercut by his larger moral view, and by an extremely awkward introduction set to Johnny Cash's 'The Man Comes Around', which is like being clobbered by a lead mallet. You can also see echoes of Dominik's signature film, Chopper, in his fascination with the violent absurdity of the criminal world—his comic hoods and their scenes of heroin use, which reminded me of the point-of-view bits in Brother From Another Planet or bits of Jackie Brown; the whole circus around James Gandolfini, as the hit man who's lost his nerve; and especially in the wonderful, if familiar, performance by Ray Liotta, both touching and absurd and culminating in extreme violence. For Higgins, this world is not absurd, and its violence rarely shocks in its extremes.

In the end, Killing Them Softly seduces by catching much of Higgins' tone, by casting good actors who make the most of the roles, and by refusing to 'blow up' the story. But if it catches the tone, it misses much of the point, without making a better one of its own.

One footnote: a number of essays about the film remarked that The Friends Of Eddie Coyle was not only Higgins' first novel, but also his best, as if this were some kind of curse and also an explanation for his lack of pick-up by Hollywood. Eddie Coyle is, as I have suggested many times before, a small and perfect book, but not necessarily Higgins' best. Because his style, although refined, remained the same, and remained the inevitable talking-point in reviews, and because he wrote 26 novels, portraying a world that was starting to change, his books received less and less attention as his career continued. In fact, you could look at Killing Them Softly as reflecting the realisation that the world has changed.

But I would argue particularly that The Mandeville Talent (you can link to the IT essay on that book here) is a subtler version of the same idea, dealing with murder and white-collar crime, while a number of his last novels, especially A Change Of Gravity and At End Of Day, are elegant reflections of his world-view in changing times. Higgins is always worth a read, and this film is certainly worth your time as well.

Friday, 30 November 2012

MARVIN MILLER: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Marvin Miller, the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association for 16 crucial years, in online now at guardian.co.uk. You can link to it here, and it should appear in the paper paper soon (note: 'soon' in Guardian terms is a flexible term: the obit actually ran in print on 30 January 2013!).

I would place Miller among the five most influential people in sport in the second-half of the 20th century, along with Mark McCormack, Roone Arledge, Pete Rozelle, and Juan Antonio Samaranch or Billie Jean King, all of whom would certainly rank in the top ten overall. Miller's function was to begin the inevitable path of sportsmen into profit-sharing (if not equal) partners in the evolving entertainment business of sport. Many people have called him the most successful labor leader of the 20th century, but his lasting achievement was to get his disparate constituency to give up the sort of individualist dreams that let ownership play them against each other. Baseball is not a perfect business by any means, and players can take advantage of the system, and seem remarkably petty toward minor-league players, umpires, and others without whom the game could not progress. But the overwhelming source of most of the problems in the game is the owners' greed, not the players', and as I suggest in my obit the biggest ongoing problem is the owners' inabilty to share their profits equitably among themselves, something they try to make the players do for them.

The idea that Miller is not in the baseball Hall of Fame seems to me an insult to the players themselves--and it's interesting to see how often journalists instinctively take management's side (it was no different for me when I was shop steward at UPITN, and looked on wonderingly as my  ITN equivalent, who also happened to be their 'industrial correspondent' routine trashed trade unions. I had wanted to include Dick Young, the New York Daily News' reactionary (except in matters of race, where he was a brave stalwart of equality) sports reporter, who regularly called Miller 'Svengali', implying some sort of evil control over otherwise dumb but honest players. What's particularly galling is that Miller's nemesis, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, is in the Hall, despite any number of bonehead decisions, not just his dug-in heels as baseball's designated anti-Miller. It was partly in reaction to Kuhn that baseball went in the other direction to choose a commissioner who might be seen as something more than a tool of the owners. They chose Bart Giamatti, president of Yale, and when he died prematurely, his assistant, Fay Vincent, took over, and would be the 'last' commissioner.

Miller came from unions like the UAW and USWA where workers had had to fight, literally, for everything they'd got, and where the costs could be measured in bodies. MLB was never as vicious in that sense as the big industries, but it was if anything far more feudal, with the players positioned as serfs. The irony was that one could almost understand the owners' position when they were men who made their livings running ballclubs--but as baseball became more and more of an industry, and more and more of the owners were rich men indulging their egos, the sense of feudality and the serfdom became even more intrenched.


I never met Miller, but in the four years I worked for Major League Baseball International, I could see the evidence of that feudal system, and the effects of his work all around me. The most evident was the inability of the union and the owners to view each other without suspicion. Miller famously told his players that if he had good relations with the owners he wouldn't be doing his job, but I look at the relationship between Paul Tagliabue as commissioner of the NFL and Gene Upshaw of the NFL players as instructive. Miller's successor (with a slight delay) Donald Fehr, was adversarial in extremis, but when Vincent, who was commissioner when I worked there, approached the union in a relatively conciliatory manner, the owners fired him and made one of their own the boss.

This became apparent to me when we had the opportunity of arranging two events in Europe; one a two-game series (which turned into one thanks to rain) between two teams (which turned into minor leaguers from the Red Sox and Mets organisations) at Lords Cricket Ground (which turned into the Oval), and the other an exhibition between an MLB team (the Cardinals) and a select team of Japanese players, to be staged in Barcelona in the spring before the 1992 Olympic games at the new baseball stadium in L'Hospitalet. I was part of management, obviously, but my position involved trying to get everyone to compromise in order to get some kind of new event off the ground. I realised I would never get there when I sat in on discussion of another event, the All-Star tour of Japan, in which my boss was arguing over meal-money, on top of the appearance fee, for the players while they were there. The union wanted $700 a day, and provision of food in the locker rooms before and after then game, which seemed a somewhat contradictory position, but would not come down from the figure. 'Frank,' they said to my boss, 'the players have to eat!' I also knew there would be more trouble when I took one of the MLBPA lawyers to Lords, and she asked why she wouldn't be able to watch the proposed games from the Long Room, but I was on her side on that one. The Olympic event never did happen, though the players had agreed to it, while the Oval game was a limited success, but what I noticed most was the way the feudal system swung into effect once everyone from New York arrived in London.

As it happens I read Miller's excellent memoir, A Whole Different Ballgame (1991), while I was working for MLBI, and John Helyar's even better The Lords Of The Realm (1994) just after I'd left it. I'd had much of my instinctive sympathy with the union hammered flat while negotiating with them, although my sympathies usually swung back towards them, thanks to the institutional malaise that was MLB. But those books put the sport I loved, and sport in general, into perspective. That sort of perspective isn't enough to get Miller into the Hall Of Fame, but it shouldn't need to be.


Monday, 19 November 2012

DASHIELL HAMMETT MEETS MARIELLA: OPEN BOOK'S THIN MAN INTERVIEW

My interview with Mariella Frostrup about Dashiell Hammett was on Open Book yesterday; the show will be repeated Thursday and is available on IPlayer (you can link to it here; it starts 18 minutes in). It's a good programme--Rachel Johnson plugging her novel Winter Games, bright young thing English gels falling for Hitler's Lifestyles of the Reich and Famous, without anyone ever mentioning the Mitford sisters (!) and a discussion of writing sequels to famous novels which immediately precedes my talking about Hammett.

Which is appropriate, given that the hook for Open Book is the publication of The Return Of The Thin Man, a new book presenting Hammett's treatments for the first two sequels to the original Thin Man movie under the guise of two 'recently-discovered' works of fiction. Our discussion of the book itself was edited from the show, sadly, because although I pointed out that this is by no means new Hammett fiction, it is very enjoyable indeed. You can see clearly not only his sense of sharp dialogue, but also his visual sense of how movies work, and what will be funny visually as well as (or instead of) verbally. But these are very much film treatments, and the first, and better, of the two, After The Thin Man, is actually a combination of two treatments, the second done after Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, MGM's resident sophisticated comedy writing pair, had done a screenplay based on the first version. Presumably the finished product, like the film itself, reflects their contributions too. The discussion of Nick Charles also lost the image of Hammett himself, posed on the original cover of the novel, every bit as elegant and handsome as his detective hero.

Hammett's is a fascinating life, often used as a metaphor for some sort of inevitable artistic failure of American artists--all those lost generation boys, as well as, say, the abstract expressionist painters who followed them in the post-war era. Fitzgerald's career forms an eerie parallel with Hammett's, right down the relationship with a younger woman who would become a more successful writer. They were in Hollywood at the same time, and Fitz seemed to be leery of Hammett, perhaps feeling once shy after Hemingway. But as I say in the programme, I think there's a definite influence, and William Nolan made the interesting point about a Hammett short-story in Colliers 'This Little Pig', which may have influenced Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby stories (Hammett also appeared in the very first issue of Esquire). Hammett was close to Nathanel West, and I don't have any doubt that, as I say, he was a huge influence on West's Miss Lonelyhearts and Day Of The Locust.

A few Hammett stories were also lost along the way; I mentioned that went Gertrude Stein went to Hollywood, she announced the two Americans she wanted to meet were Hammett and Charlie Chaplin. As usual, she didn't get it particularly correct. Dorothy Parker literally knelt and kissed Hammett's hand, and, in one famously unguarded bit of writing, Hemingway himself praised him in a story. Red Harvest was published two years after The Sun Also Rises, but the character and style predate it, and of course it had first appeared in serial form in Black Mask. I went into the parallels between the two writers, who were very much contemporaneous; I don't see a direct influence but I think they were working, in different ways, in the same direction at the same time.

The discussion of the films was brief, and didn't make the cut either (it is, after all, a book programme!) but
the Thin Man and Maltese Falcon both benefit from being cast perfectly (in fact, the second of the three Maltese Falcon adaptations, Satan Met A Lady, attempted to turn it into a Thin Man-type story, with Bette Davis and Warren William failing to match Myrna Loy and William Powell. The first Maltese Falcon, with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, is a pre-code wonder that messes with the plot in order to preserve its characters' sizzle. The famous and wonderful 1941 version was put together, literally, by John Huston by cutting and pasting passages from the novel into his screenplay (the killer final line, however, is his).

We also cut short the discussion of Hammett's political career--he was a man who was determined to make a stand, which he did twice for his country, and which he did not only to support his political beliefs, but also to stand up for free speech itself. That was the work of the last part of his life, when he was too weak physically, from the tuberulosis, the emphysema, the venereal diseases, the drinking, and the smoking, to even continue writing, he still found the strength to stand up for what his believed in. That makes him an American hero as much as an American tragedy. That and his great writing.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

ELLIOTT CARTER: AN APPRECIATION

I remember going to the 80th birthday concert for Elliott Carter, at the Albert Hall, and thinking how lucky I was because there might not be another chance to see the man who through much of my lifetime I thought of as the greatest living composer. That was in 1988. Carter has died, at 103, and it's immensely sad because I always think of him as embodying the greatest impulses of the modern era—an artist who managed to express the 20th century in its own musical language, but in a way that would be, ultimately, comprehensible in terms of the previous era. That he continued doing this into the 21st century was almost as remarkable.

Almost twenty years after grabbing that 'last chance', in 2006 I went to one of the Get Carter events at the Barbican, and Carter, now 98, was there again. Some of the music being played was old, but some was new, and just as enthralling, challenging, and satisfying as anything he'd written. I can't think of another artist who continued producing quality work that late into his life; De Kooning's late paintings don't have the same force as the early ones (and there are the inevitable questions about their provenance). Eubie Blake was still playing in his 90s, but not composing. Carter's final composition was finished just two months ago, and now he has died, aged 103, not far shy of another birtnhday.

I'm sure I came to Carter's music through Charles Ives. Just as Carter nearly spanned the Twentieth Century, he was also a living bridge to Ives, whom he discovered as a youngster in New York. Ives wrote a recommendation for Carter's application to Harvard. I once wrote about Ives, in the Spectator, and said he had a 20th century mind trapped in a 19th century soul—and what drew me to Carter, I think, was the sense I had, before I had even tried to think these things out, that Carter's mind and soul were deeply in tune with my times.

At college, I had a couple of Carter records, with lovely simple psuedo-surreal jacket designs on Nonesuch. One of them, the 1952 Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord (you can link to it here) was one of the two I played most nights when I was going to sleep (the other was Miles Davis' Bitches Brew--and it occurs to me as I write this that I felt much of the same awareness in Miles, Monk, or Coltrane that I did with Carter) which did not necessarily endear me to my roommates, even after I closed the door. I'm listening to it now, and I understand better now what it was then that appealed to me, on a deep and instinctive level. In one sense it's post-modern, about the instruments themselves, and their relations. But underneath the conflicts between the sounds, the timings, the essence of each individual, there is also a coming together, a way of knitting the chaos together, that to me brings all of modern life into focus, into perspective, into a sense of being something we can cope with and celebrate.

That sense becomes more and more profound in Carter's later work—especially as he moved to larger ensembles. I sometimes feel his status worldwide was less than it might have been because he was seen as a 'chamber' composer, as if the absence of a series of symphonies somehow lessened the impact of his music. But his major period is generally thought to have begun with the Concert For Orchestra, in 1969, and among my favourites of his work are the awesome A Symphony Of Three Orchestras and the Double Concerto for Harp and Piano, whose scale of ambition ought to be enough for anyone.


Carter is always the composer I suggest when people say they don't 'get' 'modern' music. There was a fantastic South Bank Show back in the 80s, in the days before contrived talent shows, house-selling, and cooking replaced serious work on commercial TV. It was made by Alan Benson, and linked carefully Carter's music to the tradition, provided signposts for hearing it as such. Seeing it performed often might accomplish the same thing: where the instruments might be arranged across the stage, and even regroup to illustrate what they up to. That he was perhaps better appreciated in this country than in America is interesting; Carter had many champions, but none so effective, or with the status in his own country, as Oliver Knussen here, and Knussen's conducting of Carter's work shows the profundity of his understanding of it.

It's funny. I began writing this feeling sad, wanting to mark the passing of not only a great man, but an amazing creative span, a century of artistic progress in an age not always committed to that. But as I listen to those four instruments engaged in their interactions, I find it impossible to be sad. Just as it did when I was young and looking to clear my addled brain, Carter's music seems to be recognising, and then unravelling mysteries. It is truly a thing of wonder, and though he will be missed, this music will live on, and speak to future generations about our times as profoundly as Mozart or Beethoven do about theirs.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

RUSSELL MEANS: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY


My obituary of Russell Means is up now on the Guardian's website (link to it here); it should be in the paper paper tomorrow. It was a difficult one to write to the assigned length, simply because Means' life within the AIM was so fraught with internal friction, and I could have got lost in hundreds of words on feuds, issues and personalities.

There's no question he divided people in the movement, and I wonder how much was due to the fact that, as I said, he was a drifter going from odd job to odd job across the West before he latched on to Indian politics. The urge to put his own interests in the foreground was the main bone of contention with his fellow AIM members, but it isn't surprising in the sense of a self-made political figure, particularly one as well-versed in political theatre as Means. That the theatre sometimes resulted in violent confrontation somehow made his point about the history of relations between Native Americans and the Europeans who pushed them out even more clear.

The move to movies was natural--no pun on Natural Born Killers intended--and he is very good indeed as Chingachgook in Michael Mann's Last Of The Mohicans, which is an excellent movie that's true to James Fenimore Cooper even as it departs from the text. Oddly enough, he played a supporting role in another Fenimore Cooper adaptation, a 1996 TV movie of The Pathfinder, in which Graham Greene plays the older Chingachgook (Pathfinder is Natty Bumppo, aka Hawkeye and Deerslayer). Even more oddly, he played the title character in another film called Pathfinder (2007) not based on Fenimore Cooper but about Vikings battling Indians in the pre-Columbian times. I made the point that he played a number of Indian heroes, which came out in the paper as simply heroes, but Jim Thorpe is a fine example of a hero whose status as an American Indian made his story ultimately tragic. I'm not of the belief Means' story is tragic, by any means, but it certainly never achieved all that we would have hoped he might have. And my original ended with a noting that, three days after his death, his ashes were scattered at a ceremony in the Black Hills.

BRODY LED THREE SO-CALLED LIVES? HOMELAND SERIES TWO


The second series of Homeland begins with Carrie on her meds and teaching EFL, while Saul is cruisiaround Beirut dressed as Meyer Lansky, and might as well be wearing a sign saying 'shoot me, I'm the CIA station chief here and I'm Jewish'. But having disposed of Carrie, the CIA then send her back to Beirut, which in Homeland terms is basically a teeming street market bordered by crumbling houses and populated by shifty-looking people who automatically follow strangers and threaten them. Sort of like Brooklyn.

Meanwhile Brody, everybody's favourite Marine sergeant turned Congressman is now a viable Vice-Presidential candidate; in fact more viable than Paul Ryan, while moonlighting as an Islamic terrorist. It's a shame he appears to be a Republican, because he'd fit right into the Obama White House with that profile. He's picked up a new handler, an English-accented woman (Roya Hammad, played by Zuleika Robinson, left) who's somehow got White House press credentials for her grad student blog, because we have to make it easy for Al-Queda, and because no one's yet figured out that Damian Lewis, despite having served in the 101st Airborne during WWII, is British. But then so is the guy playing Carrie's careerist nemesis at the CIA, David Estes (played by David Harewood).

By a quirk of picking up the right cloth shoulder bag on her way out of her Beirut contact's apartment, Carrie unwittingly delivers to Saul a copy of Brody's suicide-bomb confession—which of course has never been used, but the Al-Queda types like to carry around with them when they head to the teeming markets to do their shopping. Saul manages to sneak it out of Beirut, by hiding a copy which the Lebanese version of Homeland Securtity confiscate, and now we now that the psychologically disturbed Carrie was right, David was wrong, and Brody is now a problem.

In fact, Lewis' adjustment to American life has an extreme flaw, which is when he gets into casual dress. He seems to prefer a kangol and polo shirt (this is a marine sergeant, not a suburban golf pro, remember) two sizes too small early on. But then, in episode three, despite his having to make an important political speech with the VP (played by Jamey Sheridan as if he's Michael Murphy), Roya sends him to drive the Al Queda bombmaker who's a tailor in Gettysburg to a safe house. The illogic of this boggles the mind, especially since in other ways Al-Queda are supposed to be all-powerful, with assets everywhere in America. But it gets even worse when Brody arrives in Getttysburg walking stiffly through town in a casual outfit of baseball cap, windbreaker, and slacks that appears to again be too small for him, as well as brand-new, starched and ironed. And he walks with a prissy kind of stiffness which would make him stand out in any small town, unless it were the set for a remake of Invaders From Mars. I thought maybe this was somehow a sort of character comment, a cunning reference to Fifties paranoia, or to his inability to adjust to civilian life as a spy, but I suspect the reality is that either Brody is more comfortable in uniform, whether Marine or politician, where he can be as stiff as he likes, or Lewis is more comfortable in British casual wear.

Then, as he tries to change a flat tire without a jack, and chase his passenger through the woods in a rainstorm, which winds up in his having to kill him with the patented TV neck-breaker while he talks to his wife who's wondering why he's not at the speech. Watching Lewis trying to balance these elements of his it occurred to me what I was seeing was a 21st century version of I Led Three Lives, the Fifties TV show which starred Richard (no relation) Carlson as Herbert Philbrick, 'citizen, communist, counter-spy'. I recalled mentioning the show as one of a number of examples when I wrote about Homeland's first series last year (link here). But now the parallel was more direct, although in this case, Brody has only two lives, I thought with some disappointment.

That disappointment lasted only as far as episode four, in which Carrie hands Brody the ulitmate hotel bar pick-up rejection: just as he's about to embrace/strange Carrie agents burst into the room, and this CIA version of the Murphy game sees him led away with a black hood over his head, headed to Gitmo or some safe house torture chamber.

So the stage is set for Brody to be turned—whether by persuasion or by the sort of combination of therapy and drugs that has been so ineffective with Carrie—into a real Herbert Philbrick. He's the war hero who's been turned by Al-Queda who can now operate as a double-agent, thereby doubling the risk, and, as Philbrick discovered, making even the simplest daily tasks fraught with suspicion, deception, and of course danger. The possibility is then open for the CIA, knowing that Carrie is a head case and has already been involved with Brody, assigning her to be his handler, which will add an element of the 'will they-won't they' dilemma so beloved of American television morality, and it leaves the continuous question, which was never a problem for the audience following Richard Carlson, of whether or not Brody's latest conversion is real.

Complicating the issue will be Brody's Marine ex-buddies, the most demented of whom is convinced (correctly) Brodie played a part in the murder of his fellow convert to Islam, the sniper Walker, and a burgeoning sub-plot of romance between Brody's daughter and the son of the Vice-President, which raises the worry that the need to keep a teenaged audience interested by showing them versions of themselves, which so plagued 24 that it quickly became unwatchable, could well take over the show. I can see Abu Nazir sending the Teen Terrorists to the US and infiltrating them into Sidwell Friends School.

I Led Three Lives was a paradigm of the Red Scare during the death-throes of the McCarthy Era. Homeland is threatening to become exactly the same thing—with the hugely exaggerated threat of the enemy within being overcome by the increasingly harried misunderstood hero. Lewis does a great imitation of Richard Carlson worried he won't be able to find a pay phone in time to let the FBI know where and when the cell meeting is where the latest secrets are about to be passed on to Moscow. Beneath the flash of the plot, the twist of Brody's being a successful politician and a legitimate Moslem/terrorist (which thus far in Homeland appear to be the same thing) and of course the distinct pleasure we take in watching Clare Danes go all psycho every week, Homeland is, at heart, an old paradigm come home to roost, I Led Three So-Called Lives, under the guise of My So-Called War On Terror.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

MAX ALLAN COLLINS' BYE BYE, BABY

In an appealling bit of synchronicity, the Guardian on Friday ran an interview with Martin Landau, who,asit happens, dated Marilyn Monroe in the Fifties when both were at the Actors' Studio. Landau was explaining how he felt neither James Dean nor Marilyn were suicidal, and their deaths have been remembered for all the wrong reasons. 'There's always a lot of conjecture about Marilyn's death,' Landau explained. 'It's still a mystery; no one seems to know exactly what happened. Yes, there were ongoing issues with Marilyn, but they did not support the idea of suicide in any way, shape or form.'

The quote struck me because I had literally just finished Max Allan Collins' Bye Bye Baby, his thirteenth Nate Heller historical true-crime novel, but the first to be published in nine years, and it deals with the death of Monroe, in 1962. I've written before about the Heller series, and what a crime it is, if you'll pardon the expression, that they have basically avoided publication in Britain. Perhaps British publishers thought that American crimes, like the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Black Dahlia murder, or the assassinations of Huey Long or Chicago's Mayor Cermak, wouldn't have any appeal to their audience. But Heller has also investigated Amelia Earhart's disappearance, the sighting of aliens at Roswell, and the murder of Sir Harry Oakes, which involves the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. And now Marilyn.

By the time the book opens, Heller is highly successful, the PI to the stars, and he has a close relationship with Monroe. She hires him to big her own house, and he discovers that she is already being spied upon, by multiple snoops. You should know the story by now—having been dumped by JFK and begun an affair with brother Bobby, she was also embroiled in a feud with Paramount over the filming of Something's Got To Give (remember the poolside photos?). Her death was suspicious in many ways—not least because the police were not called for hours afterwards, and the amount of barbituates in her system was so huge it's hard to imagine how she might've ingested them all.

Around this story Collins weaves a plot which draws Heller back into the orbits of many people he's worked for or encountered before—not just the Kennedys and their hangers-on, but Sam Giancana and the mob, Frank Sinatra, and Jimmy Hoffa. This is one of the strongest points about the Heller series—Collins has patiently been building the connections which amount to a dissection of at least part of the secret history of the United States. It's odd that he should be travelling in much the same circles as James Ellroy—I recall in an interview his explaining how much he liked Ellroy while at the same time being unable to read his books—but of course coming at the material from a very different style.

Heller the character veers between two points. He is a hard-boiled but soft-centered detective, which occasionally makes him a very appealling character in a sentimental sort of way. This is essential to Collins because the Heller books are told in the first person, with a real sense of nostalgia about them. As he himself has noted, they are not strictly speaking, period pieces, like Stuart Kaminsky's Toby Peters or Andrew Bergman's Jack LeVine, but to me they are often close in tone to Herman Wouk's Wind Of War, with Heller sometimes playing a Pug Henry type character, almost an observer, occasionally a catalyst for history.

What's interesting in Bye Bye Baby is how much the success of the novel depends on the depth of the characters—for example, his composite detective who's doing the bugging of Monroe's house, and his Dorothy Killgallen et al composite journalist are both key characters with whom Heller has to interact—and neither gets the time to be totally convincing. On the other hand, his historical figures are much more so—both Kennedys, John Roselli, Giancana, Joe DiMaggio, Peter Lawford and even Sinatra all fit the personalities we think we know, but have real and sometimes surprising depth. The lesser-known figures around Marilyn are likewise drawn well—though some of them, especially Dr Ralph Greenson, were sort of parodies of themselves already. I was curious to learn that James Hamilton, of the LAPD's Intelligence Division, was briefly head of security for the NFL; I've met a couple of his successors along the way.

The key, of course, is his Marilyn. There is an element of voyeurism to Heller's own relationship with her, as well as a couple of very touching moments. But where Collins gets it best is when he shows her trying to control her own life, particularly her business side, but being vulnerable because she can never control her emotional life. That insight, and the way it's expressed make the book work. And the 'solution' makes a certain amount of sense—it may well be the only way to draw all the anomalies of the case together.

For all the careful characterisation, there is also a moment of unintentional humour, which comes from the unavoidable need to sometimes be expository in the story-telling. Heller and some cops are talking to Eunice Murray, Marilyn's housekeeper, and one of the shadier people in the story, Heller notes that her story sounded prepared. 'Marilyn was “motionless” and “looked peculiar”...who talks like that?' he asks. When, later in the book, Heller discusses Marilyn's non-vindictive nature with Flo Kilgore, and brings up her feud with Joan Crawford. 'I remember that,' he says. 'But she expressed her disappointment and hurt over the affront,saying how much she'd always admired Crawford.' I made a quick note, asking 'who talks like THAT?'

But I also found it intriguing that, when Heller does his summing up, for our benefit, of what happened to the characters, his mentions that Roselli was found floating in an oil drum in Biscayne Bay. He doesn't mention that he was found just before he was scheduled to tesitify before the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Maybe that's because he's saving that bit info for the aftermath of his next Heller book, Target Lancer, due out in November, which will mark the 29th anniverary of the first Heller novel (pubished in 1983) and the 49th of the JFK assassination. As I said, Heller has already dealt with many of the key figures around the assassination—including (I've been working my way through his short stories too) one Jake Rubinstein, a Chicago hood Heller knew in his early days, who wound up owning a strip club in Dallas where he was better known as Jack Ruby. I'm looking forward to it already.

BYE BYE, BABY by Max Allan Collins
Forge Books (USA) $7.99 ISBN 9780765361462

Friday, 19 October 2012

REMEMBERING THE LAST WITNESS TO LINCOLN'S ASSASSINATION

The Atlantic recently posted a remarkable video on their website, from the Fifties panel show I've Got A Secret. The clip, from 1956, features a 96 year old man who had been present at Ford's Theatre in Washington when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. You can link to the clip here, and in the piece is another link to the newspaper article that prompted his appearance on the show. Rebecca J Rosen of The Atlantic points out the relative 'brevity' of a century and a half, noting that there are far fewer differences between that TV show and our shows 57 years later, than there were for Mr. Samuel Seymour living from 1860 to 1956. It's too bad he didn't make it to the Civil War Centennial, which dominated my consciousness for a couple of years in 1962-63, but sadly he died only a couple of months after appearing on the programme.

As it happens, my great-grandmother's father was born in 1843 and died in 1945. He came to the US to avoid pogroms or wars (and narrowly missed the Civil War himself) fought on horseback and with muskets, and died after the first atomic bomb was dropped. I can remember my great-grandmother saying how he would have lived longer had he not smoked cigars. The link is not so remote as we might think.

I can tell my son about my grandfather's reaction to silent films. I was watching them in the mid-1970s, and would discuss them with my Grandpa Gene, who was born in 1900. He would immediately be drawn into his memories, precise in their fresh detail, of favourite films and, as interestingly, favourite actresses. As we talked he would drift into the present tense--we were talking about movies that were real, in the moment, for both of us.

As it happens, I remember I've Got A Secret, and by 1956 we had a TV so my mother might well have been watching that very episode. The funniest bit is when the host, Gary Moore, assumes the Lincoln assassination had nothing to do with the Civil War. But what was most interesting for me was watching how entertaining Bill Cullen and Jayne Meadows were on the panel. American TV in the Fifties still bore many of the trademarks of radio, and was New York centric, and there were 'personalities ' on it whose position was very much like some of the ubiquitous BBC people who fill panels and guest on radio and TV. Cullen and Meadows are funny, but they're also smart, and not afraid to be so. The other panelists were Henry Morgan and Faye Emerson, neither of whom I ever warmed to. The Meadows sisters (Audrey was Jackie Gleason's wife on The Honeymooners) reminded me of my Aunt Jean, too. The show ran for 21 years, with Steve Allen, another of those smart and funny people, taking over for Moore. Cullen would host its brief revival in the mid-Seventies.

Doing a little research, I was surprised to see I've Got A Secret was co-'created' by Allan Sherman, who would go onto fame as 'My Son The Folksinger', with the hit 'Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah'. I put 'created' in quotation marks because the show was such an obvious copy of What's My Line; both came from the Godson-Todman stable of shows. As the Atlantic piece notes, it's funny to see the cigarette sponsor front and center at Moore's desk; it's almost as funny to note $80 was the grand prize, or to see the crewcuts and bowties which indicated a certain level of acceptable (not as suspect as 'longhaired' --ie, not crewcut)--intellectual. Their spiritual descendants are the George Wills or Tucker Carlsons (no relation) who wear bow ties to signal they are playing intellectuals on TV.

The passage of 56 years hasn't dimmed my memory of flickering black and white TV. In fact, the images in my mind may be sharper and more stable than they were on our old Philco, just as my grandfather's memories of silent film actress could still bring a warm smile to his face. And remembering that brings a warmer smile to mine. Just as those memories live on in us, we live on in the memory of others.